‘Tis the Season of Nutcracker-And Other Treats and Torments

When December comes, can The Nutcracker be far behind? No, it can’t-not in America, anyway. And certainly not at the State Theater, where Balanchine’s wonderful version is happily in residence until Jan. 4. But how does a critic justify returning to it again and again-that is, a critic whose children are too old for it and whose grandchildren are too young? The best excuse is catching an important debut in a central role like Sugarplum-not because it’s the most challenging of parts, but because historically so many young comers have first been spotlighted this way. One wants to see what management is thinking, and why they’re thinking it.

At a recent Saturday matinee, a new Sugarplum was unveiled. Her name is Megan Fairchild, and she’s a dark-haired little thing who was featured at the S.A.B. workshop performances several years ago and almost immediately started getting attention in the company itself. She’s assured and she’s pleasing, but I’m afraid she’s not yet a Sugarplum. Self-assurance isn’t the same thing as command, and she isn’t, as of now, either a dancer of grandeur and amplitude-a Farrell, a Nichols, a Tallchief (on whom Balanchine made the role)-or a dancer of attack and refinement: a Merrill Ashley, a Gelsey Kirkland. Nor does she have the overwhelming allure and charm of an Allegra Kent or a Patricia McBride. She’s nice, and she’s going to be nicer-but this was an unhappy debut. She was in control in her opening solo, but she danced small; there was no expansiveness and not much expressivity. In the climactic pas de deux, there were partnering problems from the start (she was dancing with the highly charged newcomer from A.B.T., Joaquin de Luz). And then came disaster in the famous moment when Sugarplum places her toe on the invisible moving strip that’s meant to slide her magically forward. I don’t know who or what was to blame, but I’ve never seen this device misfire so badly.

Some aspects of The Nutcracker never change. Hugo Fiorato was conducting confidently, as he has been for 40 years. (Can he have been the original conductor back in St. Petersburg in 1892?) And gasps still erupt in the audience when the transfigured tree grows and grows. Other aspects have modified over the decades. There are now enough young boys in the school so that in the opening party scene, little girls no longer have to stuff their hair under their caps and dress up in jackets and trousers. And the Stahlbaums’ guest list is now fully integrated.

The production as a whole shines. The Stahlbaums themselves were particularly effective-Dena Abergel a caring young matron, Ask la Cour a tall and very-much-in-charge father and host; they were both in the spirit of the thing, never condescending to it. There was even an especially histrionic (and funny) mouse. But the star of the performance was Ashley Bouder as Dewdrop. She’s been an outstanding talent from the time she joined the company, and everything has now come together; she has the very qualities Fairchild still lacks-command, attack, openness, musicality. In other words, Bouder is a true Balanchine dancer, the first the company has produced since Jennie Somogyi. This was a career-defining performance that makes one want to see her right away in a dozen major Balanchine roles now being danced by lesser talents. Well, it’s Christmas-I can dream, can’t I?

Speaking of The Nutcracker , I’ve bravely exposed myself to a DVD of Barbie in The Nutcracker , an animated movie with “Choreography by Peter Martins.” The choreography is irrelevant (there isn’t much of it, anyway), because no dancing can look good as performed by what appear to be semi-rigid celluloid aliens with glazed expressions and enamel smiles. The action is almost totally different from E.T.A. Hoffmann’s and Balanchine’s, and so is the tone. There are actually a few amusing lines and clever situations-just don’t think, though, you’re getting The Nutcracker you know and love.

Far worse is the follow-up, Barbie of Swan Lake , which is a top seller this season. Once again Peter Martins is the choreographer, more intrusively this time around. (The dancing in both movies is modeled on filmed performances of prominent members of City Ballet.) Here, the divergences from the ballet are profoundly distorting. Nothing of the troubling heart of Swan Lake remains. Instead, we get a frisky, feminist unicorn and an adorable skunk! To call this Disneyfication is to insult the genius of early Disney and the professionalism of later Disney. But the two Barbie DVD’s share a real distinction: Although they make use of the traditional ballet scores, in both cases the credit for the music reads “by Arnie Roth,” as “based” on Tchaikovsky. It’s the best credit line since the famous apocryphal one for the 1929 Pickford-Fairbanks Taming of the Shrew : “By Samuel Taylor, with additional dialogue by William Shakespeare.” Does Peter Martins lend himself and his company to this kind of travesty just to cash in, or does he see himself as a proselytizer, bringing ballet to the masses? We’ll never know.

Because it’s December, it’s also Alvin Ailey time-five weeks at the City Center. What is there left to say? The dancers are fabulous, the repertory isn’t. As usual, there are 20-odd performances of Revelations -it’s a ritual, the audience lapping it up from first to last. You feel they might not mind if it were done backwards. There was live music at the performance I saw, and it was so over-miked that it coarsened the whole experience.

The revivals this season include Judith Jamison’s tribute to Ailey, Hymn , with a narrative arranged by Anna Deavere Smith. Not only is it weak choreographically, it’s irritatingly self-referential and self-satisfied. Much more interesting is Rainbow Round My Shoulder , a famous 1959 piece by Donald McKayle, to chain-gang songs. And yes, it’s about the chain gang-a piece of folksy agitprop. Seven men are in the line, hands locked behind their backs. “The Boy” is the glorious Matthew Rushing; “The Man” is the splendid Glenn A. Sims; and Renee Robinson is “The Dream-Sweetheart, Mother, Wife,” a perfect role for her at this point in her career-she can be lyrical, caring, loving and intense without needing more strength than she can muster. The men, clustered on the ground, thrust their arms upwards in anguish; the lighting turns dramatically red; two shots ring out-two deaths. It sounds hokey, and it is hokey, but conviction-the conviction of the Ailey dancers-carries it. It isn’t cynical, it isn’t empty, and it isn’t on automatic pilot.

Jennifer Muller’s Footprints , one of the three new pieces I saw, isn’t cynical; instead, it’s full of portent. Renee Robinson is some kind of spiritual leader-she’s in white. Her people are afraid. The movement is generic. Considerably better is Alonzo King’s Heart Song , set to Arabic music. We’re in the desert. Arab drums beat. There’s an effective duet for Matthew Rushing and Jeffrey Gerodias-they’re bare-chested and in tattered skirts. In “Arabic Lullaby,” three women carry in what seems to be Gerodias’ dead body and lay it tenderly in Dwana Adiaha Smallwood’s lap. The tall, handsome Wendy White Sasser, in beautiful blue, is a kind of benign presiding spirit. There are some sections that are completely balletic-all that’s missing are toe shoes. Other passages have orientalisms pasted on, but if the same steps were being performed to Brahms, say, or to the Stones, rather than to songs called “Allah ya Mulana” or “Kwitini ya Na’ima,” you’d have no way of knowing you were in muezzin country.

As for Robert Battle’s Juba , it has an attractive new jazzy score by John Mackey and four whirlwind performances, by three men and the multi-talented (and multi-hyphenated) Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell. They’re in a frenzy of agitation and propulsion, and they’re electric. But everything is predictable-so much is going on, yet nothing happens. A startling example of this syndrome at work: In a performance of Ronald K. Brown’s Serving Nia , one of its nine men was replaced by a woman, and it didn’t much matter. With Ailey, in fact, it often doesn’t much matter who dances what, since so much of what’s being danced is so generic. One exception: Elisa Monte’s extended duet, Treading , which has a vocabulary and a life of its own (it’s both sculptural and intimate). It was beautifully performed by Fisher-Harrell and Clifton Brown.

If you want to have a terrific time watching dance, go for the new Jerome Kern musical, Never Gonna Dance . The idea sounds awful-a show based on the Astaire-Rogers Swing Time : “The Way You Look Tonight,” “I Won’t Dance,” “Pick Yourself Up”-with extra Kern songs interpolated, from “Dearly Beloved” and “Who?” to “I’m Old Fashioned” and “The Song Is You.” Even more nervous-making, a couple of relative unknowns are taking on Fred and Ginger. And yet, against all odds, they carry it off-by being themselves and not trying to be their illustrious predecessors. Noah Racey has charm, energy, drive. No one will ever dance like Fred Astaire, but Racey is good-he never stops giving his all, and it’s enough to carry the show. And Nancy Lemenager comes through as well, even though she’s not just an un-Ginger, she’s an anti-Ginger. Rogers was feisty, brusque, provocative-Astaire had to win her love through dance. Lemenager’s Penny loves Racey’s Lucky almost from the start; she’s just a nice girl caught up in a dicey situation. The Victor Moore–Helen Broderick comic-relief couple are gotten just right by Peter Gerety and Karen Ziemba. I hope the Tony people are watching. In fact, everyone involved is talented and working overtime.

But what makes the show so successful is the endlessly inventive yet unfussy staging by Michael Greif, and the happy choreography by Jerry ( Hairspray , The Full Monty ) Mitchell, which manages to catch the spirit of the 30’s and of Astaire-Rogers without turning into imitation, parody or pastiche. This is a real audience show-you leave the theater not only humming the songs but (almost) dancing the steps. That Broadway can boast two dance musicals as different and as pleasing as Never Gonna Dance and Movin’ Out is a modern miracle. I must be dreaming.

Finally, for select loved ones at Christmas, there’s the dance book of the year. Nancy Reynolds’ and Malcolm McCormick’s No Fixed Points: Dance in the 20th Century is not only extraordinarily informative, it’s amazingly readable. You may not agree with every word, but you’ll read every word with pleasure and profit.